The ruling in the copyright infringement case against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke is ridiculous. Like any good student of 70s R&B, the first time I heard Blurred Lines – the Thicke / Williams / T.I. collaboration that became the biggest hit of 2013 – I knew it wasn’t only inspired by Marvin Gaye, but inspired by the specific 1977 Gaye song Got To Give It Up. But “inspired” is vastly and vitally different to “plagiarism.”
The judgement that Blurred Lines copies without credit Got To Give It Up sets a precedent so dangerous that music fans should be on their hands and knees praying Williams (who, the court heard, wrote the song himself despite Thicke’s official co-credit) and Thicke win an appeal.
The details of the case are worrying: the judge has awarded the family of the late Marvin Gaye (who died in 1984) US $7.4 million – the highest ever amount in a music copyright infringement case. Intriguingly, much of the case rested not on listening to the two songs against each other, but on comparing Blurred Lines to the original Got To Give It Up sheet music because that’s all the Gaye estate had ownership over. Staggeringly for a copyright infringement case, the jurors were only allowed to hear a stripped down version of one of the songs, in this instance, Got To Give It Up.
In the Gaye family’s pursuit of millions of dollars for a song neither they nor their father wrote, the jury didn’t get to hear the exact melodic realities of the two songs. As in, that they are just that: two different songs. Blurred Lines and Got To Give It Have have entirely different melodies set to very similar grooves. Not similar hooks, not similar melodic patterns, just similar grooves. By groove we really mean percussion, beats per minute and the feel of the beat. By evoking the percussion of Got To Give It Up and using a Gaye-like falsetto for the vocal, Williams as primary songwriter and producer beautifully crafted a respectful homage to a hero of his and Thicke’s.
|Robin Thicke, a model and Pharrell.|
Quite rightly, Williams and Thicke were so relaxed about the song’s debt of gratitude to the soul giant Gaye that they would openly discuss it in interviews. But debt of gratitude and literal debt weren’t distinctions the greedy Gaye offspring could let pass them by and at one point they were seeking as much as US $25 million in compensation. All for a song they didn’t write, all for a song their father didn’t write.
When melodies and hooks are copied without credit, then songwriters are obliged to discuss legal action. The recent and amicable case of Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning Stay With Me sounding far too much like Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down was quietly settled without anyone stepping into a courtroom. And rightly so because the two totally sonically different songs share an identical melody, even if unintentionally.
Pop music history is littered with countless cases of unintentional plagiarism – click here to read New Zealand Herald writer Russell Baillie’s list of some of the most notable examples – with George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord arguably the most famous case. Harrison’s song was much too close melodically to the Chiffons He’s So Fine and large sums of money subsequently changed hands, but there are also plenty of examples of mates borrowing famous mate’s tunes and everyone turning a blind eye. Think Rod Stewart’s The Killing Of Georgie and its Beatles Don’t Let Me Down-recalling refrain, “Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away.” Paul McCartney knew it was the same tune but Rod’s so gosh-darn likable he let it slide.
Rod wasn’t so lucky when Da Ya Think I’m Sexy was picked up for similarities with the Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jor’s song Taj Mahal and had to settle out of court. And McCartney himself has sometimes wondered whether he should’ve pursued not Rod, but 90s girl trio TLC for Waterfalls – click here to read how that song’s unique lyrical metaphor of “chasing waterfalls” was an uncanny match for a forgotten McCartney song from 1980.
When hooks or riffs are sampled, like they are for countless hip-hop songs, you’ll so often see in the small print songwriting credits for the likes of the Isley Brothers, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Hall & Oates, the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder etc etc. Think Notorious B.I.G / Puff Daddy Mo Money Mo Problems sampling Diana Ross I’m Coming Out. All above board and with all original songwriters (Edwards & Rodgers) kept happy.
But back to Blurred Lines and the blurred lines of copyright infringement, if we’re going to go down the path of percussion and “feel” being intellectual property then that seems like a creativity-ignorant, not to mention creativity-sapping, path. Michael Jackson’s mid-90s hit They Don’t Really Care About Us may or may not’ve been inspired by Paul Simon’s The Obvious Child from half a dozen years earlier. They both feature entirely comparable, distinctive Brazilian percussion and Jackson was known to have been a fan of Simon’s from back when he was a kid. It isn’t plagiarism in my mind, but perhaps we should ask the Gaye children, though they’d have to judge this without the carrot of a multi-million dollar payout.
Bruno Mars’ recent hits have all had open sonic echoes of his favourite artists’ best work: Locked Out Of Heaven updates The Police’s Message In A Bottle, Treasure sounds like early Prince songs I Wanna Be Your Lover and I Feel For You while Uptown Funk is a glorious appropriation not just of Prince but so too the Gap Band, Parliament and the Commodores.
Speaking of the Commodores, it is this great Alabama six-piece who are especially relevant in the case of Blurred Lines vs Got To To Give It Up. In the mid-70s the Commodores were best known for hard funk like I Feel Sanctified and Slippery When Wet. White funk / rock outfit Wild Cherry proudly did their best to create a song as close to the aforementioned Commodores songs as possible in order to appease the funk-loving tertiary crowds they tended to play before.
Play That Funky Music was Wild Cherry’s spectacularly successful Commodores impersonation and there’s zero doubt the track would not have existed without Slippery When Wet. As such, I’d love to let the Gaye kids know anyone with functioning ears could inform them these two songs – Play That Funky Music and Slippery When Wet – are a hundred times more alike than Got To Give It Up and Blurred Lines. But there’s no money in that argument for the Gayes so we can only assume they’d be disinterested.
Defining the exactitudes of plagiarism over inspiration is a fraught but necessary process. Intellectual property must be protected and artists must be valued and to be blunt, must be paid. Only in this matter, the great Marvin Gaye’s children haven’t protected their father’s intellectual property, nor his creativity. They’ve just made money off a song he didn’t write but that he helped inspire, just as Gaye himself was inspired by the likes of Sam Cooke. Gaye’s children should be ashamed.